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Over the past couple of years, I have had the unique opportunity to work with many early childhood program directors nationwide who are leading during challenging times. Their issues include the staffing crisis, inventory issues for necessary products, food shortages, and enrollment of children within their programs. Many have commented that most days are spent just trying to manage issues hour-to-hour, only to wake up and do it all over again the next day. Job burnout has been very real. While adrenaline assisted for the short-term, many are now reporting the negative impact of stress on the body and long-term health results. They are concerned about themselves, their staff, and the impact on everyone’s health and mental health.
Throughout the pandemic, the media has reported a record number of people with issues related to their health, including anxiety and depression. These issues weaken the body’s immune system, making it more difficult to prevent disease and maintain health. One of the most important strategies is to stay physically healthy by focusing on these four areas:
While these four areas are things we are all already aware of, how can they be implemented? Here are early childhood leaders from across the nation who did this by simply reaching out and asking local community resources and businesses to help.
Leader of her program for over 20 years, as the days wore on and the stress continued to seem greater, Lucyna gathered key staff members and asked them for ideas to help deal with the stress they were collectively feeling. Ignited by this opportunity to help, two staff members decided to contact local businesses, and within two weeks, the following services were in place:
The staff was so appreciative, and Lucyna reported that she has stabilized staff turnover, and the call-in rate has declined. She is feeling more hopeful and ready to tackle each day.
New to the field as a leader and childcare program owner, Shante opened her center a year before the pandemic took place. Impacted initially by low enrollment, Shante struggled to keep the doors open to serve children and families in her community. Her state utilized recovery funds to help stabilize child care, and Shante became eligible for many funding opportunities and services. Together with a business consultant provided by the local Child Care Resource & Referral Agency, ideas were generated, and Shante was able to reach out and establish the following services:
Shante had no idea these were all possibilities until she contacted her childcare licensing representative and the Resource & Referral Agency in her area. She gained the confidence to reach out to her community for help. Enrollment is increasing, and due to these perks for staff, she has been able to attract qualified staff as the program has grown.
A graduate of the local community college, Jessica served as a lead teacher in her program. Due to the pandemic and medical concerns, the long-time director decided to retire, and Jessica was promoted to director in 2021. Jessica was eager to put her education and experience to good use and applied for the position. While Jessica was initially thrilled to serve as director, and the staff supported her promotion, she reported feeling “burned out.” It was getting harder and harder to stay positive with the staff. Recognizing her internal struggle, Jessica reached out to her former instructor at the community college, who helped her think of strategies and ideas to lift up herself and the staff that she cared for so deeply. Within weeks, she and her instructor worked to set up these services:
Recognizing her ability to lead during tough times, the staff held a surprise potluck lunch for Jessica, and they collectively donated money for her to enjoy a spa day. Jessica reports feeling more encouraged, and the bond between her and the staff is stronger than ever.
Serving a low-income area in a major city, Norma knew about many services but always thought of these in the context of serving families. As she worked in the classrooms to help cover staffing issues, Norma began to understand her staff’s lives and concerns better. While she initially saw these as excuses to avoid coming to work, some invested time with individual staff members helped Norma better understand her staff’s struggles. She realized that even some basic needs were unavailable to the staff or their families. That’s when she decided to reach out to local businesses and the health department to assist with common challenges and develop interests she learned that the staff had:
The morale and low attendance rate began to change. Within three months, Norma’s time in classrooms covering for staff was reduced significantly. She was able to start working more on her administrative tasks, which resulted in her feeling better about her abilities to lead. Norma and her staff feel stable and are more engaged with the enrolled families and children.
Each of the directors showcased in this article made the decision to prioritize self-care and caring for others. They wanted to avoid burnout. When reaching out to the community, they did experience some requests that resulted in a “no.” However, each saw these as opportunities to grow awareness of their programs by being vocal about their needs. If you feel it’s time to put you and the staff first, reach out to your community. Use these ideas and strategies as a springboard to investigate the possibilities.
Jane Humphries, Ed.D., serves as the Aim4Excellence™ Program Specialist and curriculum developer for the McCormick Center for Early Childhood Leadership at National Louis University. She has written curriculum and facilitated online learning in graduate and undergraduate level courses since 2004. The Aim4Excellence program is the online National Director Credential recognized by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) accreditation and is incorporated in multiple state quality rating and improvement systems.